From Star Wars to Wars Star
‘When I saw Star Wars before it was released, I realised the power of it as a piece of film-making, and set out deliberately to try to do something that would contrast with the character of Han Solo.’ Harrison Ford
The principal photography of Star Wars was completed in the August of 1976. It would be nine months before the movie was dropped on an unsuspecting American public. But Harrison Ford didn’t sit around and wait for success to come to him. The role in Star Wars was his biggest achievement in the eleven years he had been in movies. He was aware that Han Solo had been a major role in a major film. If he was to avoid the typecasting he feared would follow in the wake of Star Wars he had to make his move immediately. He cast around for a part that would avoid the flippant derring-do of the Solo character, and found it in a rather grim tv horror movie, The Possessed (1977). Starring James Farentino, the film was a cynical reworking of some of the themes from 1973’s The Exorcist, pitting Farentino’s unfrocked priest against a bunch of demons in a girls’ boarding school. Ford played the cool biology teacher all the girls had a crush on.
|Ford looks fresh-faced in the Exorcist knock-off, The Possessed.|
Harrison Ford’s next film role was yet another piece of space filling, which he did at the request of his old friend Fred Roos. Francis Coppola was about to begin work on his latest project, a Vietnam war tale which had been written by John Milius and had originally been slated to be directed by George Lucas as a ‘mockumentary’ on location in Vietnam while the conflict was in full effect. As it worked out, Lucas had stepped aside and Coppola himself ended up in the director’s chair. The film was the now-legendary Apocalypse Now, which was shot in the Phillipines and starred Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall.
‘My scene was shared with Martin Sheen,’ recalls Ford. ‘It wasn’t a big role for me, just a nine-day cameo as a US Army Intelligence Colonel. I had my hair cut short and presented another image, Vietnam style.’
As, perhaps, a tip of the director’s hat to Lucas’s early involvement in the movie, Coppola had Harrison Ford’s character wear a name-tag on his uniform which read ‘Col G. Lucas’.
|Ford was almost unrecognisable as "Col G.Lucas" in Apocalypse Now.|
‘It’s just the one scene,’ says Ford, ‘the laundry list scene – it told the audience all they needed to know for the rest of the movie. And when George (Lucas) saw it, the scene was half-way over before he recognised me. That was exactly the way I wanted it.’
When asked by writer Tony Crawley how he would compare Lucas and Coppola as filmmakers, Ford replied, ‘It’s really presumptuous for an actor to get into that kind of discussion. More so for me, I’m not intellectually equipped to make such judgements. Let’s see – they both have beards and glasses, and a difference in personality. I know what the differences are, but it would take me about two days to explain it. Certainly, they both allow their actors enormous freedom. Francis lets you make a choice and then moves everything to support you, to make it work for you. He’s really delightful.’
But as much as Ford may have enjoyed the experience, brief as it was, on Apocalypse Now, it was still really only walk-on cameo. Word of Ford’s performance in Star Wars must have been getting around, because Ford was offered a meaty supporting role in a middleweight Hollywood movie called Heroes.
Heroes was the film which marked the big-screen debut of Henry Winkler. Winkler had shot to fame in the phenomenally successful Happy Days tv series. It's commonly believed that Happy Days was based, unofficially, on American Graffiti. However, the basis for Happy Days was an episode of top-rated tv show Love, American Style ("Love and the Happy Days", 25 Feb 1972) that aired before Lucas' film went into production. In any case, Winkler had grown tired of being so irreversibly identified with ‘The Fonz’ and had selected Heroes for his escape from television.
The story concerned the uncertain adventures of a returning Vietnam veteran, whose ambition it is to set up a worm farm in Nowheresville, California, and his relationships with his best pal (Harrison Ford) and his girl (Sally Field). Jeremy Paul Kagan was the director.
|Ford had the thankless task of playing Henry Winkler's best buddy in Heroes.|
‘I did Heroes for short money,’ says Ford. ‘It wasn’t a big part, and I wasn’t paid big money.’
The filming of Heroes was straightforward enough except for one hiccup which involved Harrison Ford and occurred before even a foot of film had run through the cameras.
‘Ten days before shooting Heroes,’ recalls Ford, ‘Jeremy changed my character from a mid-Western to a Missouri farm-boy. So off I went to Missouri with a tape-recorder to learn the accent. I bummed around for about three days and went and met the actual type I was going to play – a guy interested in cars. I went into an auto-part store and told them I was a writer because if you tell them you’re an actor, you spend the rest of the time talking about movies – and it also puts a certain distance between you and them.’
When it was released, Heroes proved not to be the cinema box-office success Henry Winkler was looking for. The film was over-long and patchy and sank without a trace.
‘It was a good part,’ says Ford philosophically, ‘but Henry Winkler was the real star of the film.’ His next role, as the American Ranger Lieutenant-Colonel Barnsby in Force Ten From Navarone, brought him a little closer to centre-stage.
LEARNING THE WAYS OF THE FORCE
Taking the role in Force Ten From Navarone was probably one of the sounder career decisions made by Harrison Ford during the period that immediately followed Star Wars. Although it was another supporting role, the fact that it was a major Hollywood style movie made it preferable to a leading role in a small independent production.
‘It’s fun to do those supporting roles, because they’re good character pieces,’ Ford pointed out to an interviewer. ‘The problem is that they don’t usually write character parts as the leads of the movies. Unfortunately, you can’t always play the supporting roles because of the complicated vision that people in this industry have. Hollywood only really takes notice when you’re being paid the money and given the billing that a “lead actor” gets. That’s why Force Ten from Navarone was important for me to do. Its cast was a “package of big names” which included me.’
Force Ten from Navarone was a belated sequel to the 1961 war adventure The Guns of Navarone and tells how the only survivors of the first adventure, Major Mallory (here played by Robert Shaw) and Sergeant Miller (Edward Fox) are sent to Yugoslavia with Lt Col Mike Barnsby (Harrison Ford) and his squad of US Rangers to find and eliminate Nicolai Lescovar, the German spy who sabotaged the original mission and who is now posing as a Yugoslavian resistance fighter.
Ford must have seen something in the character he could work with. In a press junket interview before the film was released, he did talk about the character as though he respected the kind of person Barnsby was. ‘He’s a man of real capacity. He flies, he fights, he’s got brains, but everything works against him. At the last minute he gets the Robert Shaw and James Fox characters tacked onto his mission, so there’s a lot of adversity in the relationship between them, until he begins to need them and they begin to need him – a nice kind of continuity of cross purposes that become established and finally resolved. An interesting character. I think it’ll work.’
|Ford didn't really have much to work with in the humourless |
role of Barnsby in Force Ten from Navarone.
When Force Ten from Navarone was released it wasn’t well received by the critics, though Playboy’s Bruce Williamson gave the film a cautious thumbs-up, saying, ‘Guy Hamilton builds Force Ten into a straightforward, man-size adventure – a nostalgic toast to the good old war years, when we unequivocally rooted for our side to win.’
The Monthly Film Bulletin was less charitable. ‘Leadenly scripted and directed, this rather belated sequel to The Guns of Navarone is depressingly short on thrills and almost completely lacking in suspense.’
For me the biggest problem was the clash between ex-Bond helmer Guy Hamilton’s decidedly old-fashioned movie-making style (even more so when you compare it to George Lucas’ staging and direction on Star Wars, filmed a year or two earlier) and the very contemporary acting style of Ford, clearly ahead of his time and waiting for the rest of the movie industry to catch up with him.
Ford is the first to admit that there wasn’t very much in Force Ten from Navarone he could work on. ‘Mike Barnsby was one of those macho, tough-guy parts that everyone thought I should be doing.’ He expanded on this in another post release interview. ‘Force Ten from Navarone was an attempt, in a way, to objectify the success of Star Wars. It wasn’t a personal success for me. It was George’s movie, his success. Nonetheless, I wanted to take advantage of the chance to work. And it was a job I did for the money. And I was lost, because I didn’t know what the story was about. I didn’t have anything to act. There was no reason for my character being there. I had no part of the story that was important to tell. I had a hard time taking the stage with the bull that I was supposed to be doing. I can’t do that, and I won’t ever do that again. It wasn’t a bad film. There were honest people involved making an honest effort. But it wasn’t the right thing for me to do.’